Trump is losing it

The incumbent US president launched psychological warfare in Tulsa.

U.S. President Donald Trump stands at the
US President Donald Trump stands at the podium listening to his supporters cheer as he addresses his first campaign rally in months in Tulsa, US on June 20, 2020 [Reuters/Leah Millis]

The stage is set, the lines are drawn, the stakes are high and Donald Trump is losing it.

His mismanagement of the pandemic and the civil unrest gripping the United States have cost him dearly. He is trailing behind his Democratic rival Joe Biden in the polls by a double-digit margin. If the US elections were held today, he would lose “bigly”, and that is just driving him crazy.

Trump is down but not out. He is nearing the tipping point but not there yet.

He has lost the economic and political gains which he hoped to use to launch his campaign. And it would be improbable if not impossible for him to overcome the recession and public anger before the November elections.

So he has resorted to psychology, embarking on a public relations offensive to deflect criticism and alter public perception in his favour, focusing on a small segment of the electorate in the swing states, which he hopes will help him repeat his 2016 victory.

Back then Trump had a number of perceived psychological advantages in the electorate over Hillary Clinton, some quite silly considering the stakes.

According to some psychologists, being the taller candidate and being seen as an “alpha male” may have given Trump some advantage over Clinton.

Indeed, some 80 million people watched as the 6-foot-3 (1.9m) celebrity towered over Clinton during the 2016 debates and threatened to lock her up. His name appearing first on the ballots in the key swing states may have also helped. 

But today, these instinctive psychological “advantages” are neither relevant nor sufficient, and Trump must come up with a new strategy to restore public confidence in him in a time of crisis.

Restoring confidence

In an attempt to appear in control during a national health disaster, Trump has tried to change the public’s psychology by anointing himself a “war president” to fight the pandemic.

He has also referred to himself as the “law and order” president during the civil unrest, advocating military intervention and putting Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of the US armed forces “in charge”. 

He even played God’s special messenger during the early days of the civil unrest, brandishing a copy of the Bible he had not read in front of a church he had not attended to defend a faith which was not under threat.

To no avail.

Public anger continues to simmer. The pandemic has taken the lives of 120,000 Americans and rising. The economy is in the deepest recession since World War I, and society is in turmoil. Even religious leaders are not buying into his insecure machismo.

So what began as a bleeding of support a few months ago has now turned into serious haemorrhaging.

That is why Trump has been so eager to get back on the campaign trail. He feels he has a connection with the crowd which can help him pull his presidency from the jaws of disaster.

He has had a unique understanding of power and its psychology since before he went in to politics. He is ready to “go to the mat” to get what he wants.

So he set off on a crusade to break the Democrats’ fighting spirit and to win back “hearts and minds”, the hearts of conservatives and the minds of independents.

First stop, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Psychological warfare

Trump began his first rally since the pandemic by serving red meat to the Red state, which voted overwhelmingly Republican in 2016.

He started with a perilous populist appeal, calling his supporters “warriors” and warning of “some very bad people outside … doing bad things”.

With no economic or political case to make, he ignored the civil unrest, joked about the deadly pandemic, and denied the deep recession, as AJ+’s Tony Karon aptly remarked.

Trump slammed the “shameless hypocrite”, “sleepy Joe” Biden, warning if he is elected president, “our country would be destroyed”.

And he dissed the “radical left” Democrats, especially “hate-filled, America-bashing” Ilhan Omar and “socialist” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

He also demonised the “negative”, “radical”, “fake news” media, and the subversive radical left that holds Biden hostage.

Trump aims to go as far as it takes to shock and awe until he overwhelms his detractors and beats them into submission.

But in Tulsa, the reality proved more complicated.

The promised large crowds did not materialise and the relatively poor attendance of his much-publicised rally turned the hype into humiliation.

Contrary to Trump’s assertions, fewer than 200 protesters were seen in Tulsa that day and they by far were not the main deterrent for prospective attendees.

Clearly, many of his supporters are not dying to hear his grievances and falsehoods during the pandemic.

Clearly, his tireless repetition of smears and satire is no longer as entertaining to his core supporters.

Clearly, he is losing control over his emotions and his tone, and the more he loses it, the more he loses support.

As people lose confidence in the president, so do the antsy and opportunistic political elites.

An increasing number of Republicans, including former generals and aides, are deserting his sinking ship; some out of fear for the party, not to mention the country’s future in case of a Trump second term. Some reckon he poses a “danger to the Republic“.

This leaves the incumbent president no choice but to double down on incitement against his opponents, before defections snowball.

The question is, what will Trump do if he loses the psychological warfare? Or, rather how far will he go to get re-elected?

For psychology goes in both directions, and Trump sounds increasingly paranoid about liberal institutions conspiring against him, about the media, the courts, and the “deep state” bureaucracy besieging him.

He has even asked his followers if they also had the impression “the Supreme Court doesn’t like [him]”.

Objectively speaking, being paranoid does not mean no one is actually colluding or conspiring against Trump or clamouring for his downfall.

That is why those celebrating his defeat prematurely should beware of his determination to do anything to win.

A desperate and humiliated Trump may do just about anything.

The stage is indeed set and the fault lines are drawn, for national elections and for a national showdown.